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The Aroma of Choice: Health Freedom and Aromatherapy

Posted on June 06, 2014 0

The Aroma of Choice: Health Freedom and Aromatherapy

Written by: Dorene Petersen, Dip. NT, Dip. Acu, RH (AHG)

(NOTE: You may also be interested in the NAHA Teleseminar on this subject as well as the language aromatherapists should be using in their practice. You can find the teleseminar "Aromatherapy and the Art of Language" here.)

Some of my favorite summertime activities in the United States are gathering with friends and family for picnics and parties on the patio, at the park, or on the beach—especially on the Fourth of July. Even though I’m originally from New Zealand, there’s something about this celebration of freedom that fills me with hope and excitement for all the possibilities and opportunities that lie ahead.

We’ve worked hard to build a society for ourselves where we are not discriminated against; where we can speak and write freely; and when we feel things need to change, we have the right to petition our law-makers. Yet, change is a process that takes time, particularly in the holistic health industry. Citizens seeking more natural approaches to healthcare have long had restricted access to services from natural medicine practitioners, such as Registered Aromatherapists (RA) and/or Certified Aromatherapists.

Aromatherapy and the Law
In many states, a practitioner can be criminally charged with practicing medicine without a license for offering alternative therapies, such as herbal medicine, homeopathy(1), and aromatherapy. This is also the root issue that spawned the “Health Freedom” movement, which supports patients’ rights to access alternative treatments and health practitioners of their choosing.

So what does this mean for aromatherapists? While the Aromatherapy Registration Council (ARC) (2)  offers registration through an extensive exam ensuring RAs have demonstrated a core body of knowledge and commitment to safety standards and ethics; the ARC makes it clear that, legally, “it is important to realize that the ARC Aromatherapy Registration Exam and the ARC Certificate in no way constitutes a license to practice medicine, diagnose, or treat patients.”(3) This holds true for those who are professional members of NAHA (the National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy) and/or AIA (Alliance of International Aromatherapists).

California law provides a useful example of this type of restriction. “The unlawful practice of medicine is defined as: ‘Any person who practices or attempts to practice, or who advertises or holds him or herself out as practicing, any system or mode of treating the sick or afflicted in this state, or who diagnoses, treats, operates for, or prescribes for any ailment, blemish, deformity, disease, disfigurement, disorder, injury, or other physical or mental condition of any person...’ CA Stat. Sec. 2052.” (4)  Considering the many uses and therapeutic service benefits of essential oils, the wording above makes providing a therapeutic aromatherapy consultancy fraught with pitfalls in the state of California, even as a Registered Aromatherapist through the ARC or other Certified Aromatherapists.

However, positive change is on the horizon. The National Health Freedom Coalition (NHFC) is an organization formed with the purpose of promoting and advocating for Health Freedom laws across the United States. As of 2013, there are nine states that have Health Freedom laws, including Arizona, Minnesota, California, Colorado, Rhode Island, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Idaho, and New Mexico. Because legislation varies from state to state, RAs and other Certified Aromatherapists should be vigilantly aware of, and compliant with, relevant legislation and reform within the state where they practice. The NHFC maintains a listing of the state advocacy groups which can be accessed through their website.(5)

Safe Harbor and Health Freedom Laws: How Do They Affect Aromatherapists?
Health Freedom and safe harbor laws mean greater opportunity for Certified Aromatherapists or Registered Aromatherapists to practice ethically without fear of violating the rigid and over-arching definitions of “practicing medicine without a license.” The legal structure of a safe harbor bill or law can allow non-licensed practitioners to legally operate, as long as they comply with the provisions stated within the safe harbor law.

For example, in 2009 New Mexico passed the safe harbor law, “Unlicensed Health Care Practice Act,” which specifically places aromatherapy under the definition of “‘complementary and alternative health care service’ [defined as] the broad domain of complementary and alternative healing methods and treatments.”(6)

This means that an aromatherapist is protected from being in violation of New Mexico medical licensing laws as long as (s)he complies with the provisions listed within the act. Section 3 states:

A complementary and alternative health care practitioner who is not licensed, certified or registered in New Mexico as a health care practitioner shall not be in violation of any licensing law relating to health care services pursuant to Chapter 61 NMSA 1978 unless that individual: A. engages in any activity prohibited in Section 4 of the Unlicensed Health Care Practice Act; or B. fails to fulfill the duties set forth in Section 5 of the Unlicensed Health Care Practice Act.” (7)

One important provision to note in Section 5 of the New Mexico “Unlicensed Health Care Practice Act” is the requirement for the aromatherapist to supply an “informational document” to the patient or client. This is more commonly known as an “informed consent” document. This is a common provision within many safe harbor bills in the United States, including Louisiana(8),  Minnesota(9)  (which also specifically refers to aromatherapy), Rhode Island(10),  and California (11).  This document can be labeled differently in different states—you may see it called something like a “client bill of rights” or “disclosure.”

Under New Mexico law, the informational document notifies the patient or client:

• of the nature and expected results of the aromatherapy services to be provided.

• that the aromatherapist is not a healthcare practitioner licensed by the state of New Mexico.

• of the aromatherapist’s degrees, education, training, experience, or other qualifications regarding aromatherapy.

• of many other details surrounding the aromatherapist’s background as well as the patient’s rights to honesty and privacy12

Some of these states require this “bill of rights” to be visibly posted within the aromatherapist’s office as well as an individual hard copy document. 

While this type of requirement varies state to state, many Certified Aromatherapists and/or Registered Aromatherapists find it useful to provide an informed consent document regardless of the law. The New Mexico Complimentary and Alternative Medicine Project LLC (NMCAAMP) has a useful checklist for creating this informational document for New Mexico practitioners,  and can be found on their website.13

While a great number of states are still without Health Freedom laws, many holistic health advocates are campaigning for safe harbor bills.  For example, a safe harbor bill is currently being advocated in Missouri by Melissa Toye.14 

States Without Health Freedom Laws
It’s extremely encouraging to see our industry progressing. However, even though our society and the allopathic medical community are becoming more comfortable with the idea of alternative modalities like aromatherapy, there are still many states without Health Freedom laws.

As with any healthcare practice, it’s essential that a Certified Aromatherapist and/or Registered Aromatherapist be highly informed about the laws of his or her state in order to legally practice aromatherapy in a state without a safe harbor law. Legislation varies from state to state, and I would highly encourage all aromatherapists to visit their state’s legislative website and review the laws relating to healthcare and practicing medicine. But I would also like to offer a few basic guidelines and key functions—the do’s and don’ts—of a Certified Aromatherapist and/or Registered Aromatherapist.

Let’s start by discussing what an aromatherapist does not do:

• Diagnose disease: An aromatherapist is free to evaluate a client and determine possible causes of imbalance, but he or she cannot diagnose disease, and should always refer clients back to their primary care physician for a diagnosis when necessary.

• Treat disease: As with diagnostics, the aromatherapist does not focus on disease, but rather shares helpful information with clients, empowering them to take control of their own health and wellness.

• Prescribe drugs or pharmaceuticals: An aromatherapist offers education surrounding essential oils, herbs, natural remedies, and holistic nutrition.

• Perform invasive procedures or touch therapies without licensing: Registration through ARC or Professional membership with NAHA does not license an aromatherapist to perform touch therapies such as reflexology, chiropractics, or massage. However, if an aromatherapist is also a licensed chiropractor or massage therapist, the modalities can be used in tandem with one another if it is within the scope of practice of the profession.

There are still many ways an aromatherapist can be a helpful and useful holistic health practitioner without resorting to the “don’ts” listed above.

An aromatherapist does:

• Understand good health and recognizes that it requires a holistic approach, including fresh water, physical activity, fresh air and sun, plenty of rest, and a focus on proper nutrition.

• Share knowledge about achieving and maintaining health and wellness with essential oils, homeopathic formulations, herbs, and other natural modalities.

• Evaluate each client with a holistic approach, recognizing that daily nutrition, the environment, and lifestyle choices have a large impact on health and wellness.

• Empower their client to achieve improved health by addressing any imbalances caused by poor sleep quality, imbalanced nutrition, and any other negative lifestyle habits.

• Recognize when allopathic healthcare is needed, and is always prepared to refer a client to their primary care physician for diagnosis and/or treatment.

Ambassadors for Aromatherapy and Natural Medicine
While the Health Freedom movement is growing and legislation is changing, aromatherapists have an obligation to uphold the highest standards and ethics to maintain integrity within our industry.

This requires vigilance when working with essential oils for clinical use. It’s important, for example, that an essential oil is not labeled to imply that it’s intended for use in the diagnosis, mitigation, treatment, or prevention of disease, and intended to affect the structure or any function of the body. This type of claim categorizes the oil as a drug, and all “new drugs” require approval from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). So, for example, as an aromatherapist you cannot say, “This oil is supportive for cholesterol.” Though the statement does not include the word “treat,” it implies cholesterol is high.

Certified Aromatherapists as well as Registered Aromatherapists should always choose the highest quality of pure, unadulterated essential oils. This requires a thorough knowledge of sourcing, production, distillation, and labeling. There are many unregulated and misleading terms when it comes to essential oils such as: “spray free,” “all natural,” “therapeutic grade,” and “CPTG Certified Pure Therapeutic Grade®.” These are unregulated marketing terms, and in no way mean the oils are truly pure, organic, or unadulterated, and often lead consumers to falsely believe that they are superior to Certified Organic essential oils.

We are ambassadors for the practice of aromatherapy. With all of these exciting changes it’s ever more important to maintain the upmost integrity when practicing aromatherapy. I often find it helpful and inspiring to re-read the National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy’s Code of Ethics, found on their website, NAHA.org.(15)

I am encouraged by the progress we have made in our efforts to make aromatherapy and other natural modalities more readily available and accepted. The road to Health Freedom is long, but I couldn’t be more excited to be part of such a courageous and inspiring community of healthcare practitioners.

(NOTE: You may also be interested in the NAHA Teleseminar on this subject as well as the language aromatherapists should be using in their practice. You can find the teleseminar "Aromatherapy and the Art of Language" here.)


1. National Health Freedom Coalition (NHFC). (2012). Mission and Case Statement. Retrieved from http://www.nationalhealthfreedom.org/aboutNHFC/mission_statement.html.
2. You can learn more about this organization on their website at http://aromatherapycouncil.org/.
3. Aromatherapy Registration Council (ARC). (2011). Frequently Asked Questions. Retrieved from http://aromatherapycouncil.org/?page_id=75.
4. National Health Freedom Coalition. (2012). Mission and Case Statement. Retrieved from http://www.nationalhealthfreedom.org/aboutNHFC/mission_statement.html.
5. You can learn more about the National Health Freedom Coalition at: http://www.nationalhealthfreedom.org.
6. Unlicensed Health Care Practice Act HHGAC/HB 664 Retrieved from The National Health Freedom Coalition (NHFC), Health Freedom Laws Passed: http://www.nationalhealthfreedom.org/documents/NewMexicoHB0664_2009.pdf.
8. 2005 Louisiana Revised Statutes 20-37 VI-B. Retrieved from Louisiana State Legislature: http://www.legis.la.gov/legis/Law.aspx?d=321645.
9. Chapter 146A. Complementary and Alternative Health Care Practices. Retrieved from 2013 Minnesota Statues: https://www.revisor.mn.gov/statutes/?id=146A.
10. Relating to Health and Safety – Unlicensed Health Care Practices. Retrieved from State of Rhode Island General Assembly: http://webserver.rilin.state.ri.us/BillText/BillText02/HouseText02/H6719a.pdf.
11. 2001 California SB577 - California Complementary and Alternative Health Care Practitioners. Retrieved from legalinfo.ca.gov: http://www.leginfo.ca.gov/pub/01-02/bill/sen/sb_0551-0600/sb_577_bill_20020923_chaptered.html.
12. Unlicensed Health Care Practice Act HHGAC/HB 664 Retrieved from The National Health Freedom Coalition (NHFC), Health Freedom Laws Passed: http://www.nationalhealthfreedom.org/documents/NewMexicoHB0664_2009.pdf.
13. New Mexico Complimentary and Alternative Medicine Project LLC (NMCAAMP) Check list for creating the ‘Patient Information Document’ Retrieved from http://www.nmcaamp.org/downloads/6_PatientInfoChecklist20090619a.pdf.
14. Oberholtz, C. & Rittman, E. (2014, February 20). KCTV5. Missouri woman seeks bill to support alternative medicine. Retrieved from http://www.kctv5.com/story/24767135/missouri-woman-seeks-bill-to-support-alternative-medicine.
15. National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy (NAHA). (2014). Code of Ethics. Retrieved from http://www.naha.org/membership/code-of-ethics/

About Dorene Petersen
Dorene Petersen is President and Founder of the American College of Healthcare Sciences. She holds a BA degree in Archeology and Anthropology from Otago University, New Zealand, is a NZ trained Naturopath and ran a busy clinic in NZ specializing in aromatherapy and herbal medicine. She is also a certified acupuncturist with specialized training in Chinese herbal medicine and moxibustion. Dorene serves as Chair of the Aromatherapy Registration Council and is a member of the Research and Educational Standards Subcommittee of the Distance Education Training Council. In addition to her work as President of the College, Dorene also teaches courses for ACHS and leads the annual ACHS study-abroad program to Indonesia and other locations, which explores holistic health, traditional herbal healing, aromatherapy, and essential oil distillation and production, among other topics.


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